Photo Source: National Interest
There is a growing trend among the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific on the development of aircraft carriers. This may be the result of the maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, as well as the growing geostrategic shifts manifested by China’s rise. China recently activated its first operational aircraft carrier the Liaoning in 2016. At the same time, it is also developing more carriers to bolster its fleet, challenge US power in the Indo-Pacific, and establish stronger maritime control in the region. In effect, a handful of key regional powers have also started to develop their own aircraft carriers despite certain limitations. In effect, other regional powers also began their own aircraft carrier development projects and would lead to the possibility of a low-level naval and air arms race. While the deployment of aircraft carriers is not as numerous in the region compared to other effective naval platforms such as attack submarines, the mere operational deployment of a single aircraft carrier can be a powerful strategic force multiplier to any country that effectively commands one.
The strategic and operational value of an aircraft carrier lies in its purpose: sea-air dominance. Alone, an aircraft carrier can carry out various missions ranging from maintaining airspace and maritime control, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, maritime security, search-and-rescue, and even humanitarian assistance. This is mainly due to the ship’s capability of storing and launching various combat and support aircraft to fulfil various missions and tasks. At the same time, an aircraft carrier does not deploy to naval missions on its own. Instead, it is normally accompanied by other formidable warships such as destroyers or frigates, submarines, and naval support or logistics vessels. These vessels would form carrier task groups/fleets, making their presence even more intimidating. Having a fully operational aircraft carrier means that a country has significant capability and capacity to project its military power and strategic reach. The deployment of these warships in military operations around the world provides immense strategic reach both militarily and politically. While the world’s powerful nations are not engaged in open war against each other, the presence of any of these countries aircraft carriers definitely grasps the attention of the other, especially in areas that have either strategic value, territorial disputes, or even open conflicts/hostilities.
The design or type of aircraft carrier also determines the role it plays in combat operations. Aircraft carriers that launch fixed wing combat and combat support aircrafts play a vital role in air-sea control operations. The key assets for these kinds of carrier vessels are their fixed-wing warplanes that perform various combat missions. In addition, there are also naval vessels that are not immediately identified as aircraft carriers but are designed as such. They are either known as landing assault ships, or amphibious assault carriers. These naval vessels are mainly used as platforms for amphibious assault operations. While these types of carriers cannot or were not designed to accommodate fixed-wing combat aircrafts, they can carry and deploy helicopters that can perform ASW missions as well as search and rescue tasks. Likewise, all classes of carriers have also been used to perform military operations-other-than-war, such as anti-piracy operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Recently, China’s ongoing rapid military modernization plans has already led to the operational deployment of its first aircraft carrier. After purchasing and restoring the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag, the Chinese government had it retrofitted and renamed it to the Liaoning. While not as capable as the nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the United States Navy, the operational deployment of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first aircraft carrier changes the naval balance of power in the region, and poses a challenge to countries that have a maritime dispute with China. The Liaoning provides the PLAN a new capability to its growing naval force by employing naval aviation assets to its fleet and further increasing the combat range of its maritime forces. At the same time, China is also putting the recently constructed Type 001A carrier in sea trials while in the process producing three more. All these vessels are designed to launch fixed-wing combat aircraft.
Such a development has already raised concerns from both India and Japan, two regional powers who view China’s rise as a military power as an external defense challenge. As a result, both Japan and India also began developing their own aircraft carriers. India used to operate two carriers purchased from the United Kingdom, the Vikrant (former Majestic-class) and the Viraat (former Centaur-class), and now currently has one aircraft carrier purchased from Russia named Vikramaditya (former Kiev-class). India is also currently constructing a new carrier while proposals to construct another are ongoing. All Indian carriers are used for fixed-wing combat aircraft like China’s aircraft carriers. The aircraft contingent of the Indian carriers are mostly MiG-29K fighter jets purchased from the Russian Federation, as well as a handful of helicopters for ASW and maritime surveillance.
Japan’s case is interesting due to domestic political issues. In light of Article 9 of its Constitution, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) should not possess aircraft carriers since they are considered offensive weapons. However, the JSDF already possesses naval vessels that have strikingly distinct designs as amphibious assault carriers but are identified as “helicopter destroyers”, particularly the Izumo and Hyuga class vessels. Both only carry helicopters mainly for maritime security, surveillance, search-and-rescue, and possibly for ASW. However, due to China’s rapid military development and the threat posed by North Korea, on 18 December 2018 the Japanese Cabinet approved budget allocations to retrofit the Izumo’s flight deck in order to accommodate the also approved acquisition of the Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) capable F-35B fifth generation multirole stealth fighter aircraft. Such a development is unprecedented since the last time Japan operated a fixed-wing aircraft carrier was during World War II.
There are a number of implications to this development. One effect is to lead other regional powers, particularly South Korea and Australia to convert their current amphibious assault/helicopter carriers to STOVL aircraft carriers like Japan’s Izumo helicopter destroyer. Both South Korea and Australia already operate similar kinds of vessels and have the capability and capacity to follow Japan in retrofitting their own amphibious assault vessels to STOVL carriers, especially if they intend to acquire the STOVL capable F-35B combat aircraft. In addition, regional powers with aligned strategic interests and security concerns could find new levels of naval operational connectivity if they are able to use their newly developed carriers in joint operations with other naval forces. In the case of China, further development of its carrier designs could allow it to expand its naval operational reach and also strategic control of the South China Sea. While China’s PLAN does not have the same carrier strength and capabilities as the US Navy, China’s pursuit to develop more aircraft carriers for its naval forces may be part of its strategy to strengthen its control of the South China Sea. These developments could be both a challenge and an opportunity for the Philippines. With China acquiring new carrier capabilities, there is an increased need to bolster the military capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) specifically in the air and naval aspects. Although it is not possible for the Philippine military to go toe-to-toe with China’s PLA any time soon, the AFP can still acquire air and naval capabilities that can serve as effective deterrence like the militaries of Vietnam and Indonesia. There is also the opportunity for the Philippines to understand and coordinate naval airpower strategy with friendly or allied nations that use aircraft carriers. While the Philippines is not equipped nor has any plans in the near future to acquire, with an aircraft carrier, it can help provide logistical and operational support to aircraft carriers along with their task fleets through port supply replenishments and maintenance as well as maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) support.
An assessment and study should be further pursued regarding the development of various naval and airpower capabilities among the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific, particularly weapon platforms or defense systems that may have strategic effects on the regional security architecture. Understanding these military developments among the regional powers can provide insights on the strategic posture and goals of those involved. It can also test how these nations would intend to use of newly developed naval capabilities, especially if it was their first time to operate aircraft carriers. At the same time, examining the reactions or responses of nations in the region to such military capability improvements can also indicate how aircraft carrier developments among the regional powers affect the strategic concerns of others in the region. Any further development and deployment of aircraft carriers in the region is bound to lead to further joint naval strategic and operational coordination among allies. Allied aircraft carrier groups could at least provide confidence to friendly navies, or act as a show of force against an increasingly assertive China.
Santiago Juditho Emmanuel L. Castillo has an MA in International Studies from De La Salle University and a BA in Philosophy from San Beda University. He currently works as a Research-Analyst and Planning Assistant for the Philippine government. His research specialization and interests are war and strategic studies, traditional security issues, military technology, and foreign and defense policies of Japan and Russia.